Life is brief . . .

Luke 13:1-9 (Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

No matter how often we speak about God’s amazing grace; about God’s extravagant love for us in Christ Jesus; and about the promise of life eternal; we still harbor a quiet superstition that it actually is all about us (that what we do or achieve ultimately matters).  And so, when bad things happen, we ask the age-old question: who sinned? Was it me, or a family curse, or some other form of divine retribution?  The same question is asked in John’s Gospel:

As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” (John 9:1-7).


I think of that encounter when reading Luke 13:1-9, for they share a geographical reference point: the Pool of Siloam.  In John 9, Jesus tells the blind man to wash there; and in Luke 13 he tells of eighteen deaths resulting from the fall of the tower above the pool.  In each instance the issue is the same: whether the guilt or innocence of the sufferer caused the suffering.   “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4).  Jesus’ answer is an unequivocal, “No, I tell you” (vs. 5).  The same response applies to the example with which today’s text opens: “Do you think that because these Galileans [whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices] suffered in this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (vs. 2).
As I mentioned last week, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem followed – and was closely connected to – the preceeding chapter which focused on repentance.  This week’s text is that very chapter.  And so, it comes as no surprise that just as soon as Jesus says “No, I tell you,” he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (vs. 5).  When this is followed immediately by the parable of the barren fig tree (vs. 6-9) you can be forgiven for experiencing spiritual whiplash.  Isn’t the answer no?  Well, the parable seems to say “yes!” But…
Remember what Luke means by the word repentance.  As one Lukan scholar points out, repentance is an acceptance in faith of the saving word of God which Jesus has come to announce.  The fruit of that faith is a reform in one’s life, through the overflowing of God’s extravagant grace.  And what does that extravagant grace look like?  It looks like a gardener who despite its three-year barren spell refuses to dig up and burn the fig tree.  The gardener says to the landowner, “See here!” (vs. 7).  The gardener is the advocate for the tree (he is our Advocate).  Moreover, rather than give up on the tree, the gardener will loosen the soil around it, carefully feed it, and tend to it personally (vs. 8).  This is therefore a parable of mercy.  Yet, time does indeed run out in life.  The lives of the Galilean pilgrims were cut short in Jerusalem by the murderous actions of Pilate (as will Jesus’).  The lives of the Jerusalemites ended abruptly when the Tower of Siloam fell on them.  All of these died as a result of external factors.  Jesus’ warning to his listeners has an implicit contrast: don’t lose your life because of your own procrastination.  In other words, don’t put off repentance.
The Kingdom of God – God’s reign on earth – has come and is growing.  (It’s no coincidence that verse 18-21, just beyond this week’s text, tells the parable of the mustard seed.)  The parable of the fig tree is Jesus’ call for us to grow with and through it!  But life is brief and time is short: repent.